Carl Barks was born March 27, 1901, near Merrill, OR; died of leukemia August 25, 2000, in Grants Pass, OR.
Cartoonist. Held various jobs, including cowboy, logger, steelworker, carpenter, and railroad repairman, before becoming a freelance artist, c. 1927; Eye-Opener (magazine), Minneapolis, MN, cartoonist, 1931-35; Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, CA, 1935-42, began as an apprentice animator for “Donald Duck” animated films, including Modern Inventions, Donald’s Nephews,
Donald’s Penguin, Chef Donald, and Donald Gets Drafted; Dell Publishing Co., New York, NY, writer and illustrator for Donald Duck magazine, Walt Disney Comics and Stories, 1943-66, and Uncle Scrooge magazine, beginning 1947; freelance comic strip writer, 1965-73; retired as an illustrator, 1966. Exhibitions: Diamond International Convention, Atlanta, GA, 1993; The Art of Carl Barks, Munich, Germany, 1994.
Shazam Award for Best Writer, Humorous Division, and Disney Duckster Award, both 1971; Disney Legends Award, 1991; Grande Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris, 1994.
Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: The Lemonade King, Whitman (Racine, WI), 1960.
Donald Duck and the Christmas Carol, Little Golden Books, 1960.
Donald Duck, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 1978. (With Piero Zanotto) The Best of Uncle Scrooge, edited by Mark Greenberg, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 1979.
Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times, Celestial Arts (Millbrae, CA), 1981.
The Fine Art of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck(collection of Barks’s oil paintings), Another Rainbow (Prescott, AZ), 1981.
Donald Duck and the Magic Hourglass, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 1981.
Uncle Scrooge and the Secret of the Old Castle, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 1981.
The Carl Barks Library, thirty volumes in ten sets, edited by Bruce Hamilton and Russ Cochran, Another Rainbow (Prescott, AZ), 1983-91.
Donald Duck: The Fair Fiasco, Golden Books (New York, NY), 1985.
Walt Disney’s Uncle $crooge in Color, Gladstone (Prescott, AZ), 1987.
The Carl Barks Library of Uncle Scrooge Comics One-pagers in Color: Walt Disney’s Uncle $crooge, two volumes, Gladstone Publishing (Prescott, AZ), 1992.
Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, multi-volume set, Gladstone/Another Rainbow (Prescott, AZ), 1992—.
The Carl Barks Library of Gyro Gearloose Comics and Fillers in Color: Walt Disney’s Gyro Gearloose: The Madcap Inventor, two volumes, Gladstone (Prescott, AZ), 1993.
Walt Disney Comics First Appearances, Gladstone (Prescott, AZ), 1994.
Uncle Scrooge Adventures in Color, 56 volumes, 1996-98.
The Barks Treasury, Applewood Books, 1997.
Also, artist of numerous limited edition lithographs featuring Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and other Walt Disney characters, Another Rainbow (Prescott, AZ), beginning 1983. Also, author and illustrator of numerous Dell comic books, including Donald Duck Find Pirate Gold, 1942; Christmas on Bear Mountain,1947; and Only a Poor Duck, 1952.
Barks’s characters were used for the 1987 television series Duck Tales; limited edition porcelain figurines, based on several of Barks’s oil paintings, have been released by Another Rainbow; in 1988, Disney World in Florida built a replica of Barks’s “Duckburg.”
Carl Barks was perhaps the least-known best-loved cartoonist in the world. Hardly a household name, Barks for over two decades was the driving force behind Walt Disney’s Donald Duck, as well as the creator, in 1947, of Scrooge McDuck. “This may come as a surprise,” wrote Leonard Maltin in the Disney News, “but the most popular and widely read artist-writer in the world—by at least one educated estimate—is a man about whom most people have never heard.”
Disney’s policy of keeping its artists anonymous saw to this strange obscurity, yet word began to circulate by the 1950s that Barks was the pen behind the quack. As a writer for Newsmakers commented, Barks “is credited with transforming the anthropomorphic duck into a feisty Everyman, and for creating ‘Duckburg’ town populated by several of his characters.” Maltin further noted that, though Barks was not well known at the time of his death in 2000, his stories “are still read by approximately 22 million people every month, all around the world,” making him one of the most-read comic book artists ever.
At his retirement in 1966, Barks could look back at the 500-odd comic books he had written and drawn, and the well-over 6,000 comics pages for which he could take credit. According to R. C. Harvey, writing in Comics Journal, within those many pages Barks did more than simply “entertain” his readership. “He had created a world,” wrote Harvey, “a world in which goodness is rewarded and evil is punished (but not too severely: the evil, after all, is a rather small bore evil rather than the over-weening sort we find in supervillains bent on conquering the universe or in demagogues fomenting ethnic purity).”
A Long and Difficult Apprenticeship
Born on his family’s ranch near Merrill, Oregon, in 1901, Barks led a peripatetic childhood, leaving the wheat ranch as a seven-year-old and moving to Midland, Oregon, where his father started a feedlot business. The young Barks and his older brother helped out in the business as well, feeding the cattle and spreading hay on the floors of the cattle cars. Here he came into contact with cowboys who still punched cattle for a living. “My brother and I, we just loved those [cowboys],”
Barks told J. Michael Barrier in an interview reprinted in Donald Ault’s Carl Barks: Conversations. “And oh, what vulgar-talking men they were.” Meanwhile, Barks and his brother were also attending the one-room Lone Pine School. After two years of running the feedlot, Barks’s father, William, once again had the desire to move on.
Renting the feedlot out, as he also had the ranch, he took the family south to Santa Rosa, California, where he bought a prune orchard. The move did not prove a wise one: the price of prunes fell and lack of rain in Oregon dried up any farm income they had coming in. Soon the only support the family had was rent from the feedlot, and Bark’s father had a nervous breakdown as a result of these worries.
Life went on for young Carl Barks, though. It was in Santa Rosa that he first became interested in drawing, impressed by a classmate who drew caricatures of U.S. presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt. He started developing his style of cartooning as a boy, copying the work of artists such as Winsor McCay.
As Barks told Edward Summer in an interview reprinted in Carl Banks: Conversations, “McCay was certainly one of the influences in my life, because Little Nemo was one of the first comic strips I can remember. It used to be published in the San Francisco Examiner, which we got on our farm.” The strips “Tarzan” and “Prince Valiant” also affected Barks, though he appreciated them “more for their illustrations than for their scripts,” as he told Summer.
After two years in Santa Rosa, the Barks family returned to Midland and ran the feedlot again. Barks’s mother fell ill with cancer at this time; two years later the family returned to the ranch near Merrill, where she died. Barks was fifteen and had just finished the eighth grade. High school now seemed an impossibility: the closest school was five miles distant, and Carl’s hearing was beginning to fail, making studying increasingly difficult.
However, there were good wages to be made on neighboring farms during these years, with many young men leaving and signing up to serve in World War I. In addition to farm work, Barks’s interest in cartooning had not flagged over time, and he talked his father into subscribing to a correspondence course for him, although he only finished four of the lessons. “When I was seventeen, the war ended,” Barks recalled to Barrier, “and at that time I was eager to go to San Francisco, to get where I could maybe pursue a line in cartooning. I wanted to be a cartoonist.”
The School of Hard Knocks
Despite the move, Barks’s dreams of being a cartoonist remained on hold for another decade. In San Francisco, he found work as an errand boy in a print shop, while trying unsuccessfully to place his cartoons in San Francisco newspapers. “They were well stocked with good artists,” Barks explained to Barrier. He stayed on in San Francisco until 1920, came home to the ranch for the summer to save up some money, and then returned to San Francisco to study show-card writing.
However, Barks found he had no skill at hand lettering, and quit this YMCA course after a few lessons. Once again going back to work on the Oregon ranch, he married for the first time and attempted to run a ranch himself, but was ultimately unsuccessful. With the birth of his first daughter he took a logging job, and then in 1923 found work in the railroad car shops of the Pacific Fruit Express in Roseville, California.
This was hard physical labor, but Barks never gave up the notion of wanting to become a cartoonist. “I was always trying to figure out a comic strip or something,” he told Barrier. “That’s what used to irritate my wife at that time. She was perfectly satisfied just to be the wife of a laborer on the railroad; that’s all she wanted out of life.”
But Barks still tried to place his cartooning work, finding some luck by 1928 in selling cartoons to the Calgary Eye Opener, a men’s humor magazine based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Judge magazine. “That boosted my ego tremendously,” he recalled to Barrier. Still, the time he spent trying to put together a cartooning career was resented by his wife. The couple separated in 1930, and their two daughters stayed with their mother and then with their mother’s parents.
After returning to Oregon for a time and working in a box factory, Barks finally got his break. He had regularly sold cartoons to the Eye Opener, and in 1931 he was offered a job with the magazine full time and was paid to move out to Minnesota. Once there, he discovered that he had been brought aboard to lend some stability to the publication. By 1932 he was editor and almost the sole contributor. But still not satisfied, he responded to an ad from the Walt Disney Studios in 1935 and was given a one-month probationary training period. On the strength of that offer, he left the Eye Opener for the warmer climes of California.
Barks’s trial period with Disney soon developed into full-time work that began with a job as an inbetweener—illustrating the action sequences between major movements in an animated story. Soon he was also turning in gags and scripts to the comic-strip department to earn extra money. When one of these was adapted for the Donald Duck cartoon “Modern Inventions,” Barks’s talent came to the attention of Walt Disney himself, who had him transferred to the story department to work specifically on Donald Duck tales. Two years later, in 1938, Barks married his second wife, Clara Balken.
The training in animated cartoons proved a good apprenticeship for writing comic books, but working in films stifled Barks, who wanted more control of the final product. Also, by 1942 he had developed a bad sinus condition from the air-conditioned rooms at the Disney Studios and was fed up with doing propaganda work for the war effort. He left Disney and cartooning, taking up farming once again for a time.
Soon, however, he was also doing freelance work and finally contacted Western Publishing, who published the comic book adaptations for all the Disney characters. With his years of experience working on illustrations and storylines for the Donald Duck cartoons, the editors at Western felt he would be a natural to write and draw the “Donald Duck” tales for Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories.
From 1942 to 1966 Barks did just that, working mostly in ten-page stories that were essentially a series of linked gags not dissimilar to the cartoon work he had already been doing.
First came a basic situation involving the ducks and then would come to the gags. Barks would sometimes get up in the middle of the night to write these down if necessary. With enough gags in hand, he would write out a synopsis and break this storyline into panels, developing illustrations and dialogue or description for each. Each comics page would end with a small climax or hook to keep the reader going. “In short,” noted Harvey, “the narrative rhythm of a typical Barks ten-pager evoked the sensation of an animated cartoon quite deliberately.”
Barks’s first solo effort appeared in April 1943 in the story “The Victory Garden,” in which Donald fights off hungry crows who are trying to chew up his wartime victory garden. Next came “The Rabbit’s Foot,” in which the nephews find great fortune because of a lucky paw. These early efforts have “very simple backgrounds,” according to Harvey, but soon Barks was developing his signature humorous detail, such as placing duck-shaped knick-knacks in the scenes showing Donald’s living room.
Harvey also noted that the ten-pagers were not what “gave Barks his stature as a creative cartoonist.” That came with the longer adventure stories, such as The Mummy’s Ring, Frozen Gold, Mystery of the Swamp, Terror of the River, Volcano Valley, Lost in the Andes, The Prize of Pizarro, and The Seven Cities of Cibola, the last two of which would influence filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in creating scenes for their movies. In 1947 Barks introduced Scrooge McDuck, his “stellar creation,” according to Harvey. Other creations from Barks include Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, the Beagle Boys, and the Junior Woodchucks, who would all help to round out the world of Donald Duck.
Reviewing Barks’s collected works in The Comics Journal, Frank Young noted that the artist/writer’s “voice was in constant flux” during the quarter-century he was creating comic books. “At his best,” Young further noted, “Barks is both entertainer and commentator. He seldom resists the urge to tell it like he thinks it is.
His commentaries can be didactic and shrill; they can also show admirable subtlety.” Young also went on to praise Barks for “juggling light and dark.” In Young’s estimation, this was his “greatest talent.” According to Young, “there is a warmth and clear-eyed intelligence to Barks’ best work. But there is also a relentless cynicism, from 1945 on, that later descends like a palling smog upon his once carefree universe.”
Barks once commented that Uncle Scrooge “is by any measurements the richest character ever to live in the realm of fiction. He is also the stingiest.” Scrooge first came into being as a foil for Donald Duck in the comic-book story Christmas on Bear Mountain. “I might never have used him again,” Barks recalled, “except that after a year I wanted to write a story about an old Scottish castle on a spooky moor, and Uncle Scrooge’s wealth furnished an excuse for Donald and the kids to go there, accompanied of course by Uncle Scrooge.”
Scrooge began as a minor character in the Donald Duck stories, but as his popularity grew he went on to star in his comic books, such as Only a Poor Old Man and Back to the Klondike. At this time Barks fleshed out Scrooge’s personality by adding “a little bit of humanity.” He once explained: “I wasn’t sure just how I wanted to make Scrooge—just how much of an old tightwad, how cranky. I was afraid if I got him to be too softhearted, then he would be wishy-washy.
So it was difficult to make him do what he did in this story and still keep that whole tightwad personality.” The basis for Scrooge’s character had been the “Robber Barons” of the turn of the twentieth century—men who had made their fortunes in railroads and mining, Barks observed, “by being just a little bit unscrupulous with the way they eliminated the competition.” He further explained that “Scrooge had to be in that mold, or he couldn’t have made it in an era when he was up against all those plutocrats.”
According to Barks, in the mid-1950s he began “to lose interest in … duck work,” and he entertained the idea of developing his comic strips. That dream, however, was short-lived. “When I got to thinking up material for a strip,” he said, “I soon realized that it would take months, even years before I’d get enough polished material to have three weeks of continuity to show to a syndicate. In the meantime, I would have had to have something to buy groceries with.
I couldn’t leave the ducks for that long, so I decided to stick with those ducks and figure that sometimes something’s going to decide for me. I thought, ‘It will either be that I go on to the end of my time with the ducks, or the ducks will lose their publisher, or something will happen so that there are no longer any duck comic books for me to do.'”
Years of Retirement
Before retiring as an illustrator in 1966, Barks drew more than 500 duck comics, and although he never received a byline or royalties for his work, he enjoyed his anonymity. “Actually,” he said, “I was expressing myself more freely because I was anonymous than if I had had a lot of fame and a lot of people trying to influence my thinking. Guys like Walt Kelly were surrounded by swarms of people. Of course, he loved it, but it would have stagnated me. I needed privacy and my little old hole in the earth where I could work to be productive and inspired.” Privacy, however, did not pay the bills.
Barks continued to write occasional scripts until 1973. He also began to sell oil paintings of ducks. His name was increasingly connected with the Donald Duck cartoons and comics, and his comic book covers began to fetch high prices. Disney and Barks had a licensing agreement whereby Barks was allowed to create over one hundred paintings to sell. When one purchaser began making reproductions of the cover, Disney rescinded the license.
Later another license was granted through Another Rainbow Publishers and Barks continued to paint his duck images. By the 1980s retrospective editions of his comic books were being printed, and his paintings fetched as much as $100,000 at auctions. In 1998 one such painting sold for $500,000, though little of that wealth came Barks’s way.
Barks continued to work and travel into his nineties, touring eleven European countries for Disney in 1994, in commemoration of Donald Duck’s sixtieth birthday. His third wife died in 1993; by that time he was living in Oregon once again. Looking back on his career, Barks once commented: “I’ve always wanted to promote a broader understanding of life as well as to entertain. As the world becomes more overpopulated, hatreds intensify. People have got to learn to be more patient and liberal about each other’s views.”
Barks was noted for his ability to imbue his duck characters with a wide assortment of emotions, from joy to alarm and envy. He also brought the world to the two dimensions of his comic book page, painting exotic locations as well as everyday ones of Duckburg. Upon his death from leukemia in 2000, tributes flowed in praising this master of the duck world, many of them reported in a special Comics Journal” Tribute to Carl Barks” edition.
Cartoonist Robert Crumb noted that “Barks’ duck stories sustained me and my brother Charles throughout our childhoods.” According to Crumb, Barks “was one of those rare cartoonists who could tell a great story, be funny, and draw beautifully.” Cartoonist Bryan Ashley also had praise for Barks in the pages of the Comics Journal. His stories “curved around at the end to tie up loose edges, and explode in wild humor that exploded pretense and stuffiness,”
Ashley wrote. “Character, decency, family, charity—all were honored in his stories.” Ashley further commented: “He was a great man, a decent man, a brilliant artist and storyteller, and a wonderful person.” For comics writer Dennis P. Eichhorn, “Barks’ genius was a shining light in the cultural darkness,” while for writer Tom Spurgeon Barks “should be remembered as one of the great natural storytellers of the medium’s first 100 years.”
And Don Rosa, also writing in Comics Journal, proclaimed Barks “the greatest storyteller of the 20th century,” basing such a judgment on the number of copies his tales sold, the number of people worldwide he reached, and the astounding number of artists, writers, and cartoonists who have cited him as a major influence. Barks was, Rosa concluded, “born early in the first year of the [twentieth] century, and he died in his 100th year of life during the final year of that century. It was his.”
Biographical and Critical Sources
Ault, Donald, editor, Carl Barks: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2003, pp. 55, 89.
Barker, Martin, Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, Manchester University Press, 1989.
Barrier, J. Michael, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book, Mark Lilien (New York, NY), 1981.
Chalker, Jack L., An Informal Biography of Scrooge McDuck, Mirage Press (Baltimore, MD), 1974.
Encyclopedia of American Comics, edited by Ron Goulart, Facts on File (New York, NY), 1990.
Horn, Maurice, editor, World Encyclopedia of Comics, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1976.
Lupoff, Dick, and Don Thompson, The Comic-Book Book, Arlington House (New Rochelle, NY), 1974.
Newsmakers, Issue 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
American Heritage, February 2001, John Steele Gordon, “Uncle Scrooge’s Father,” p. 26.
Artforum International, October, 1994, Diedrich Diederichsen, “Carl Barks,” pp. 74-76.
California Monthly, January-February, 1976.
Comic Book Price Guide, Number 7, E. B. Boatner, “Carl Barks—From Burbank to Calisota.”
Comics Journal, February 1991, Frank Young, “Cynical Ducks,” pp. 47-49; September 2000, “In Tribute to Carl Barks,” pp. 38-81, R. C. Harvey, “Barking up the Right Tree: How the Good Artist Made Us All into Duck Men,” pp. 109-114.
Disney News, winter, 1983-84, Leonard Maltin, “The Carl Barks Story: The Creator of Scrooge McDuck Moves into the Limelight.”
Funny world, June 1967; fall, 1979.
Graphic Story World, July 1971.
Newsweek, June 28, 1982.
Panels, spring, 1981.
Rain Taxi Review of Books, spring, 2003, Thomas Wiloch, review of Carl Barks: Conversations, p. 29.
Time, May 17, 1982.
Washington Times, June 14, 2003, “Uncle Scrooge, Pals Return as Disney Classics Are Revived.”
Comics Journal, September 2000, “Carl Barks Dies at 99,” pp. 20-23.
Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2000, p. B6.
New York Times, August 26, 2000, p. A15.
Times (London, England), August 29, 2000.
Variety, September 4, 2000, p. 70.
Washington Post, August 26, 2000, p. B6.*
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